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The missing $16 billion and the missing power

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We thought it was a dirty rumour. Apparently not. On May 22, President Muhammadu Buhari received the Buhari Support Organisation in Aso Rock. In the course of his address, the rumour became an unsettling fact. The president said that past administrations spent or wasted $16 billion on power between 1999 and 2014. Just like you and me, the president too cannot find the power on which so much money had been sunk. So, he asked: “Where is the power? Where is the power?” I wish I could tell him.

Buhari too must be baffled that with that level of expenditure, there is hardly an appreciable development in electricity generation and transmission in the country. Consequently, at least 60 million Nigerians are still entirely without electricity. Of those who do, power supply is so fitful and irregular that it keeps them outside the civilisation loop. And so, federal and state governments, businesses and individuals still depend on generators at home and in their offices. A dispiriting dependence and a national disgrace and embarrassment rolled into one. Nigeria is the largest generator market in the world. Bank managers here and abroad eat out of the hands of Japanese, Indian, South Korean and Chinese generator manufacturers and our generator merchants.

The rumour about the $16 billion wasted on power supply has been doing the rounds since Obasanjo left office in 2007. The late President Umaru Yar’Adua was the first to draw national attention to. If Buhari has to use candle light in search of the $16 billion worth of power generation and transmission, then wahala dey.

Obasanjo, who seemed to be the primary target of Buhari’s allegation, has responded to Buhari and argued that various administrative checks on the matter did not find him culpable. Someone else, he suggested, must carry the watering can. He referred Buhari to his books where he marshalled the argument against any suspicions that he might have been less than truly honest in how the money was spent and on what.

Expenditure on the power sector has not been particularly transparent. We still do not know what the three presidents before Buhari – Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan – spent on power generation and distribution in the country. Or what Buhari has spent so far on it. We may never know the truth, the whole truth. On the face of it and given our patchy record of probes, it would appear that a probe of the power sector at this time would not serve any useful purpose. On the other hand, as citizens, we have the right to know how our common wealth was spent with such embarrassing results. It is the president’s duty to answer his own loaded question: “where is the power?”

We have gone through a series of promises in the power sector since our return to civil rule in 1999. Obasanjo believed that it was a quick fix. He promised improved power supply within six months. The late Chief Bola Ige, his first minister of power, tried to effect this dramatic change, beginning with 24/7 power supply in Lagos. The odds were against him. But he gave no heed. After all, he was carrying out a presidential directive. His spirited efforts made matters worse because the distribution system was unable to carry the extra load in a hurry.

Obasanjo then unbundled NEPA. In its place, he created the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN. His gamble, and not an unreasonable one at that, was that by creating independent power generation and distribution companies supervised by the holding company, PHCN, both companies would be more efficient. It was not the magic wand. It was and is a tangled web of hopes raised and hopes crushed.

The late President Umaru Yar’Adua promised to increase power generation to 10 megawatts by November 2009. Under his watch, the country did not generate more than 3,500 megawatts. His successor, President Goodluck Jonathan, promised the same level of power generation by November or December 2010. He too made a promise he could not keep. Collectively, their fervent promises of increased power generation puttered, leaving the people more frustrated than ever before. If it is any comfort, our vocabulary was enriched with something called megawatts, said to be at the root of electricity supply.

Energy is too critical to our national development to be turned into lamentations or the blame game. This country has spent enough and suffered enough and been scandalised enough by its inability to do what comes easily to less endowed African countries: replace the bush lamp with electricity. It is beyond scandal that a nation of 198 million people manages all these years to generate between 4,000 and 4,500 megawatts of electricity. No other developing country in Africa is at the bottom of the energy sector with Nigeria. Let us be serious about this for once and take steps to stop the generators manufacturers and merchants from nakedly and cynically exploiting us and our country.

I am afraid, there is no quick fix to this problem. And it is a lot messier than most people would suspect. Our energy sector is a victim of internal and external sabotage. No one should pretend to be hearing this for the first time.

Internal sabotage refers to the deliberately poor implementation of policies and programmes relating to power. A good example of this is the purchase of 18 gas turbines by Obasanjo. At the time he bought them, the system was not prepared to receive them because the basic things such gas pipe lines had not been laid; nor was their housing ready for installation. The turbines spent more than one year before they were eventually cleared from the port. By this time, Obasanjo had left office. In a way, the former president sabotaged his own energy policy by buying gas turbines he knew could not be put to immediate use. This has been a feature of our development efforts in other areas of our national life.

You would recall the investigation by the national assembly into contract awards for the independent power plants by the Obasanjo administration. The investigation opened such unsightly can of worms that it was shut down on allegations that the chairmen and members took bribe. Still, the honourable members managed to show that it was an unconscionable rip off. Some of the contractors were fully paid but did not even know their contract sites.

The external sabotage of our energy sector is vicious because it is controlled by a powerful and vicious cabal easily represented by the generator merchants and their collaborators in the public sector. This cabal seeks to make our dependence on generators, big and small, total and permanent. An improved power generation and transmission threatens their source of wealth.

They are prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the system as it is. We suffer; they laugh to the banks. Haba. How unfair can unfairness be?
Add this cabal to the cabal on fuel importation and you have a fairly good idea of why we are stuck in the miasma of corruption and sabotage in the energy sector. We cannot leap. We crawl.

It is not a helpless situation. If we have the will, we can save the energy sector from the vicious cabals and set the country on the path of development. Two things must be done. The first is for the president to provide a road map, short term and long term, for this vital sector. We do not need to know how many megawatts of electricity is generated. We want power; we want light.

The second option is for the Federal Government to re-assess this business of the national grid into which all power generated from whatever sources must be fed for distribution nationwide. This system has proved unworkable. We need to consider the regionalisation of power generation and transmission. This would ensure that power is generated and transmitted over short distances. The word, ‘national’ is at the root of our avoidable failures as a nation. Everything need not be national to make national sense.


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